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The Gilded Serpent presents...
The Great American Belly Dance Veil Routine
by Najia El Mouzayen
September 28, 2002

It has been said recently by a famous Egyptian dancer star that the American dancer just hasn’t absorbed the essence of true Oriental dance. One can see evidence that this statement is more or less true by simply viewing a few foreign dance videos. We westerners can continue to fool ourselves; we can choose to believe ingratiating Middle Easterners who tell us that we dance just as well (or better) than their famous stars. However, the fact remains, and is not a personal insult to us: as Americans we have a significantly different response to real Middle Eastern dance music. (I do not refer to the watered down, made for America, versions recorded and sold here in America.) For starters, we have different tastes in choice of music even though similar tastes grow slowly over the years.

Precious few of us have studied the varied languages of the lyrics of the songs to which we dance. Among those few dancers who have studied Arabic, Turkish, Farsi and/or Erdu, etc. very few can understand any more than the gist of the lyrics. When we copy the Middle Eastern gestures, they often look odd and uncomfortable on us, much like an ill-fitting suit. When we choose musical selections for our performances, we are forced, either by the constitution of the audience or our employers’ wishes, to add gimmicks to the routine that are not Middle Eastern in origin or feeling (like flipping coins with our abdominal muscles as I used to do). Often audiences prefer and demand a more child-like body that is less soft and curved than the overseas ideal; while Americans do not desire to see emaciated refugees from a third world country dance, neither do they long to see someone who looks like their mama or grandma making moves that they deem either sexual or seductive in any way.

After having said all that, I must add that American style Oriental/Belly dance is a distinctive style composed of creative elements that are simply outstanding.

The routines are stage-worthy, audience related, and pleasing to the eye. American style routines satisfy expectations of the classic Oriental/Belly dance while still allowing the American (or other Western) dancer to adapt the routine to her own unique interchange with the audience. The most important essence of the dance star shines because, when beautifully executed, the dance is more than a mixture of steps, movements, copied gestures, and facial expressions.

Oriental dance is popular and fascinating precisely because it is an instrument that carries the personality or energy of the dancer to the audience in a way that does not happen (or is not supposed to) in the proscribed set of expressions and gestures common in ballet or ballroom dance (now called Dance Sport).

If the dancer’s personality happens to be American, or German, or Australian, then incorporation of all that makes up that unique individual needs to be present in her dance and should not be thrown aside in a misguided attempt to copy a Middle Easterner. In a very real sense, then, the dancer who does not attempt to imitate each little nuance of a Middle Eastern dancer may be said to be a performer whose dance is “authentic” in content.

American solo dancers usually utilize a routine that developed from the early requirements of showmanship in popular American stage presentations like burlesque, vaudeville, and other variety shows. (Though our version of Oriental/Belly dance historically has appeared in those venues, we do not think of it belonging there or being specifically representative of those venues.) The core of the American routine is: a beginning, the middle, and an end. Somewhere, tucked inside, should be ongoing visual jokes and pleasantries, a difficult feat or two, a climax, and foremost, the personality and energy of the individual performer.

In the Oriental dance in America, just like anywhere else, first comes the Magensi or Entrance Dance. However, in order to create a climax later in the performance, the Western dancer and her musicians chose the first musical selection just to set the mood and say hello to the audience. The dancer holds in abeyance displaying her body; the American audience hopes and expects that it will be a beautiful sight to behold. She sets aside her implement for difficult specialties such as sword or snake. In order to cause the audience’s energy to rise quickly, the first selection must normally be one which has moderately quick tempo, is happy, and has some degree of repetition which will enable the performer to cruise through to the main dance space or to stage center and also to greet individual members of the audience. Even though the dancer’s counterpart in the cabarets of Cairo and Beirut do the same thing, each of the three is costumed somewhat differently and seems to have a different mission statement.

While the American dancer seems Hell-bent to educate her audience that she is foremost an artist, a Middle Eastern dancer seems to get to the heart of the matter by being an artist who is intent upon making the audience believe that she is simply an entertainer.

One of the outstanding differences between American dancers and the Middle Eastern dancers is that the American dancer is costumed in her veil and prepared for her second selection when she arrives on the stage. Plus, as I mentioned before, she may be carrying with her an instrument such as a sword or a candelabrum for use later in her routine when she presents it as her “specialty”. She is generally wrapped or draped in fabric that she calls her “veil” but the veil is, in reality, either a large rectangular or a half-circular dancing scarf to use much as has been recorded in the famous Orientalists’ paintings hanging in our fine arts museums. It is not much of a mental stretch to observe that the early western dancers who impressed American audiences such as Isadora Duncan, Mary Wigman, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, Loie Fuller and others have influenced American styles in Oriental dance routines. Oddly enough, works of the fine arts have influenced the western dancer, also. The paintings of Classicists, Neoclassicists, Romantics, and Pre-Raphaelites even today influence western taste in costuming though many dancers appear to have been over-powered by Hollywood and Cairo glitz. Nonetheless, realizing that American dancers, along with other western women, have the choice of swinging around a dance pole in the altogether, or to dance and costume in a more sedate way, I am happy to note that dancers have chosen to keep a more modest, if Hollywood inspired, visage. Those who chose to perform their Oriental/Belly dance in public overwhelmingly have preferred Hollywood/Cairo beads and chiffon rather than fantasy classic costuming—until now, that is. The current trend is toward more exotic mixtures of ethnic items and pieces of costuming from a variety of Middle Eastern and Far Eastern countries. Newly produced is something that falls under the banner of American (yes, American) Tribal style—a true fantasy of anthropological fusion. In many ways, fusion fosters confusion.  Dance teachers must not assume that their students know anything much about Middle Eastern culture and history, and students are apt to believe fusion as fact rather than interpretation and essence. Fusion is sometimes presented as “the most ancient dance”, when it is not.

What many new students “know” is that Brittany Spears is a role model, is sexy, says that she studies “Belly dance”, and that they would like to move like she does. They search for a class and usually find one as close to home as possible. They then study under the tutelage of a teacher who is convinced that sexiness is counter to her own agenda of educating the public about whatever she thinks is the true Oriental/Belly dance.

I believe that the current trend toward American Tribal style dance may be the allure of the oddly sedate fantasy costume itself even more than its accompanying regimented dance technique. While without much sparkle, the colorful “Tribal” garb is endlessly more exotic than the most expensive of the Turkish or Egyptian bedlahs. On the other end of the spectrum (or speculum, as is brought to mind) it is impossible to upstage our other dance sisters who pole twine with skimpy but glittery peal-away costumes while limbs fly asunder! The most beautiful and difficult shimmy in the history of mankind cannot hope to peal the eyes of an audience in the way that wafting the pole dancers’ privates in public compels. Therefore, since we cannot outdo them with sexy fascination as we did in bygone days, then we had better come forth with something else that is truly beguiling—both creatively and professionally.

It is another of my theories that one of our most promising tools of stage beguilement is the Great American Veil Dance. Western women recognize that more than half of humanity is female and more than half of the members of most mixed gatherings are female, and we women love to see fabric rustle through the air, creating shapes, tableaux, and frames for exotic dance movements. Colorful and flowing fabrics have the capacity to enlarge the dancer’s active area and extend her projected line. If first we fascinate the women in audiences with our American ways manipulating the veil, we reason, then we have already won over half of our audience! The plan is not without merit; if we dance for American audiences in America, then we had best remember the audience’s likely demographics. It will mean nothing to the audience that the dancer is doing an authentic Moroccan Donkey Dance in authentic straw shoes and a woven hat that looks like a Mexican sombrero—they do not pay their money to be educated in ethnicity (or anything else).  They come to see what they expect will be tasteful, unusual, inspirational, stimulating, colorful, and—fun! Most of them have a fantasy idea of what constitutes Oriental (Middle or Near Eastern), which we must satisfy before we satisfy our own yearning to be ethnically correct. However, we do need to name our personal interpretations what they are and not try to masquerade them as an ethnic truth or an education in “National Geographic Magazine” in motion.

The current trend of the last decade (1990s) until now in American/Oriental dance seems two pronged: complete Egyptian/Arabic imitative immersion, or something more or less classical in its creative expression of fabrics, color, drapery, jewelry, and dance. I have not attempted to prove another of my theories; namely, that the so-called “Veil Routine” or “Veil Work” is, partly a descendent of the inventions of the American born dancer who gained fame in Paris as “La Americaine”. That dancer was Loie Fuller whose dancing scarves were lit up like beacons as she illustrated her life tableaux of butterflies, flames, and other natural phenomena. Americans, however, observed a bit of fabric—the Lebanese and Turkish hip scarf—waving  about before being tied around the dancer’s hips. They noticed also the Egyptian Malaya Leff and the Spanish Gypsy fringed shawls being tossed about, took the idea, and brought the results to new heights of creative expression. Nowhere in the Middle East is the breathtaking array of fabric movements extant that the ordinary beginning performer in America takes for granted as being an integral part of the Oriental/Belly dancing veil technique.

Being “authentic” does not make dance better; neither does it make it less valid—as long as the billing on the program is accurate. Good Orientalism (Fantasy Oriental) is good show business as long as the item is properly and accurately named.

This, of course, implies that the dancer herself ought to know whether the movements she is performing are really from “over there” or that they are, instead, a creative impression of exotic Middle Eastern stylization from our fertile western imagination, much like the Orientalist paintings of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many of our Oriental/Belly dancers have evolved from bored housewives and broad-beamed secretaries who cavort with fabrics by night, and they know only whatever they have been told by their instructors, many of whom never have visited anywhere in the Near or Middle East. They have not seen a live Oriental dancer, sat through an Arabic movie or studied any of the Fine Arts beyond those of the late Norman Rockwell. Therefore, before we dancers become too involved in believing myths of our dance form and its techniques, I think that is incumbent upon each dancer to do her own basic research as much as she is able. Rather than to spend endless hours rehearsing some hackneyed choreography cooked up for a little festival down at the Grange Hall, it would be far more useful to spend time gathering together in research groups to watch a video or two (or a hundred) that include Oriental dance stars as part of the plot (such as it may be). Professional dancers need to travel to find out what is real and what is myth, what is passé and what is current. Professional dancers (and even recreational dancers, for that matter) need to read books of mythology, study art in museums and in books, be part of audiences in whatever dance performances may come to town, and do more than feed upon our own young and our older “dansasauruses” (no matter how knowledgeable). In the end, if we wish to have a dance form that is always inspirational, that feeds the human spirit rather than feeds upon it, it will have to be one that is based in uniquely personal experience to avoid becoming dry, meaningless, and academic.

Part Two

The American Veil Dance
The second section of the American style dance routine is usually the Veil dance.
The dancer sets the mood for the second selection of her routine, which is usually danced with a slower piece of music or medley that is romantic or mysterious in nature. With the slower paced music, she features hand/arm movements, like the popular so-called “Snake arms” and various other sinewy movements that she considers her repertoire of fascinators. These hand movements usually are sensual and eye-catching and sometimes Far Eastern in origin, like Ruth St. Denis’ ”Lotus Hands”, and other Indian had gestures that are severe and precise in execution, lithe, and unlike the normal hand gestures one uses in daily life. It is rare that an Egyptian dancer would feature hand movements at all. Even though her hands may be graceful, the Arabic dancer does not twirl and wave her hands about in the air overhead while dancing, nor does she play finger cymbals incessantly. The American dancer classically prefers to perform veil work with slow music; she removes her veil and dances along with it, accomplishing as many extraordinary, surprising shapes and tricks with the fabric as possible in a short amount of time. Most American dancers go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the appearance of stripping clothing off thereby resembling a Burlesque queen. They pay a great deal of attention to hiding the mechanics of veil removal so as to avert that implication. Sometimes one is left breathless with the fast movements required to keep her material airborne while dancing against the slow music. With any luck at all, a dancer will be accomplished enough in her dance repertoire to obey the rhythms set up by the musicians—and all the while doing her more or less foreordained musical interpretations. A few of these dancers are special and extraordinary simply because they can also reveal the lyrical content of the music while accomplishing their numerous feats of magic with material.  They can also maintain a variety of bemused expressions to satisfy the audience’ desire for drama and emotional content. It is a rare artist who can do it all at the same time and a distinct pleasure to watch her. The untwining of the veil and its ultimate discard is part and parcel of the routine and yet again demonstrates the verve and creative artistry of the western performer.

Here are a few of the techniques I have taught, both in America and in Europe, that help the dancer to create the veil dance, which has earned its place as a major part of the American/western dance routine:

  • Handle fabric with the deft delicacy of your fingers rather than grasping
    with the full hand. Gracefully extend fingers not employed with the
    fabric.
  • If you have draped yourself in your fabric, unwrap it cleverly
    so as to appear magical. Hide the mechanics of fabric removal
    with your eye focus and accompanying beauty of body movements.
  • Move with irregular and varied speeds and intensity of force,
    even though the beat and tempo may remain steady.
  • Utilize significantly dramatic suspensions and sustained
    withdrawals from movement.
  • Drape and use line to create moving sculptural qualities.
  • Allow time and space to lapse between movements.
  • Avoid stringing a number of visual fabric tricks together in rapid
    succession.  Take time to set up any unexpected visual imagery.
  • Utilize visual tableaux or imagery to express the music rather than
    using them in spite of the music or using the music as simple
    backbeat.
  • Allow the veil and the air to interact, affirming the existence
    and interdependence of both.
  • Stay on demi-toe, light on the balls of your feet, and get out of the way of your veil movements.
  • Be ready to interact with whatever shape the fabric and the
    influence of air upon it produce. Be spontaneous and
    prepared to accept serendipity.
  • Discard the veil with a sense of style into a position well off your
    intended dance space.
  • Treat the fabric as though it were precious to you.



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